Skip to main content

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived - Adam Rutherford *****

Science books can sometimes be rather stuffy or prissy - but no one can accuse Adam Rutherford of this. In his exploration of 'the stories in our genes' that word stories is foremost - and Rutherford proves himself time and again to be an accomplished storyteller. His style is sometimes extremely colloquial (and very British) - so at one point, when referring to the way some people react to the smell of a particular steroid he says 'to many it honks like stale urine' and rather than say 'what really interests me' he is likely to remark 'what turns me on'. 

I love the many meanders that Rutherford takes along the way, whether it's the horrendously inbred family tree of the Hapsburgs resulting in the sad case of Charles II, or the unique genetic laboratory provided by the small and relatively isolated population of Iceland. Rutherford is at his best when exploring an apparently trivial but genuinely interesting topic like variations in earwax type. This is dependent on a single gene and his exploration of its distribution across the world is delightful. This kind of material brings a lot of QI appeal to the book.

Though there is coverage of that 'everyone who every lived', for the UK reader there is lots specific to our origins and how groupings we tend to make don't necessarily make any sense genetically. For instance, Rutherford points out that Scottish Celts are more different from Welsh Celts than either are from the English. There's also plenty of delving into the past, from the latest version of Out of Africa to our relationship (literally) with Neanderthals. 

Darwin, as you might imagine, features quite a lot. I'd say that Rutherford rather overdoes the Darwin fandom, calling him 'the greatest of all scientists across all disciplines.' I certainly don't want to do Darwin down, as he certainly made a great contribution, but as the work of Wallace and others show, his ideas were very much in the air, so if you really want to make the invidious comparison of scientists this way I'd be inclined to say someone like Einstein, who with general relativity came up with something that really came out of the blue, probably should be ranked higher.

What begins with a genetic exploration of early humans takes us into all kinds of genetic adventures (including a section where Rutherford crushes a pathetic attempt to identify Jack the Ripper that was scientifically full of holes).  While I'd recommend reading Henry Gee's The Accidental Species as well for more of the paleontology of early humans, and the evolutionary considerations of our ending up the way we have, Rutherford makes humankind's genetic origins and identity his own. 

Mostly the book is hard to fault. Sometimes it felt just a bit too unstructured - jumping all over the place in the manner of an over-excited mountain goat. And the final two main chapters lacked some of the engagement of the others. There was a fascinating section on the worrying legal cases where the defence has been ‘my genes made me do it’, but that apart, there’s an awful lot at the specific gene level, whether it’s the ins and outs of the Human Genome Project or the relationship of genes and diseases, and after a while, to the non-biologist, this got a bit samey. 

Having said that, it’s hard to see how Rutherford could have written the book without these chapters and overall it’s a magnificent achievement, a big, friendly bear of a book that pummels the reader with delightful stories and no doubt would buy you a drink if it could. I can’t help but wonder if the cover was deliberately designed to pick up DNA - it has become far more marked than any book I can ever remember reading - if it was, it wouldn’t surprise me because Rutherford fills his book with clever little detail like this. Either way, it’s a fantastic popular science read.


Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Rockets and Rayguns - Andrew May ****

The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.

Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.

May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …

Meet Your Bacteria - Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock ***

There have been a good number of books on our microbiome - the bacteria and other tiny organisms living in our body - from The Wild Life of Our Bodies throughI, Superorganism to I Contain Multitudes. Each of these is a traditional popular science book format, and all, to some degree, suffer from the same problem - in part, they have a tendency to present collections of facts, little more than bullet points of information strung together, rather than providing an effective narrative. As Meet Your Bacteria is in a significantly different format, there was a chance to imbue the subject with more dynamism and interest.'

When I first looked at the book, I assumed from its shape and cover that it would be in the style of highly illustrated, two-page spreads with large illustrations and the text little more than captions. In reality, Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock manage to subvert that format - it is, indeed, presented as a series of separate two-page spreads, but there is far more…